ROME — The United Nations’ refugee agency is imploring European Union countries to take responsibility for 150 migrants stranded aboard an Italian coast guard ship and urging Italy to let the migrants off the ship immediately.
The Diciotti rescued the migrants from a trafficker’s boat on August 16. The ship has been docked in Sicily for days, and Italy’s government is refusing to let it disembark passengers unless other EU nations pledge to take them.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi urged European countries in a statement Saturday “to do the right thing and offer places of asylum for people rescued from the Mediterranean Sea in their time of need.”
Grandi said from Geneva that it’s time to end “a race to the bottom on who can take the least responsibility for people rescued at sea.”
Italy on Friday said it would pull its funding for the EU as a “compensatory measure” if the bloc refused to come forward and help with relocating the migrants.
A high-level meeting of a dozen EU member states in Brussels on Friday, held to discuss what officials said was the broader issue of the disembarkation of migrants rescued at sea, failed to produce an immediate solution for the Diciotti migrants.
“The European Union has decided to turn its back on Italy once again,” Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio wrote on his Facebook page, adding that his country had no choice but to “take a compensatory measure in a unilateral way… we are ready to reduce the funds that we give to the European Union.”
“They want the 20 billion euros ($23 billion) paid by Italian citizens? Then let them demonstrate that they deserve it and that they are taking charge of a problem that we can no longer face alone. The borders of Italy are the borders of Europe,” he added.
Migration is a hot-button issue in Italy, where hundreds of thousands of people have arrived since 2013 fleeing war, persecution and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
Under EU rules people must seek asylum in their country of arrival, but Italy’s new government has increasingly barred boats from docking at its ports.
Brussels quickly hit back at Di Maio’s comments.
“Unconstructive comments, let alone threats, are not helpful and they will not get us any closer to a solution,” European Commission spokesman Alexander Winterstein told a briefing.
“The EU is a community of rules and it operates on the basis of rules, not threats.”